A poor kid who grew up in a Long Island housing project, Julius Erving had an uncanny ability to soar in the air, stay aloft and do things with a basketball nobody had ever seen before. He became a New York playground legend known as Dr. J, drawing wide-eyed crowds who would even clamber up to city rooftops in the early 1970s just to see him play.
Erving’s acrobatic dunks were one of the defining trademarks of the American Basketball League, and his star power helped force a merger between the upstart league and its established rival, the National Basketball Association. His innovative, above-the-rim style of play helped revolutionize the game of basketball, and Erving went on to become a Hall of Fame player, and an All-Star, Most Valuable Player and champion in both leagues.
Erving’s personal life didn’t lack for excitement either. He lived the high life, summered on the French Riviera, partied with Bill Cosby, Miles Davis and Teddy Pendergrass and was an incorrigible ladies man, fathering a child out of wedlock who later became a professional tennis star. After retiring from basketball, Erving became a successful and wealthy businessman and investor, but was bedeviled by his two oldest sons, one of whom became a career criminal and the other who died young in tragic and mysterious circumstances.
Julius Erving’s life story would surely make a great book.
Unfortunately, “Dr. J, The Autobiography” is not that book.
It’s not awful, but its hubris far outweighs its perspective, leaving gaping holes in the narrative. The autobiography is also badly undercut by a pretentious, faux-literary style written in the present-tense that seems much more like the voice of his professional cowriter, Karl Taro Greenfield, than Julius Erving himself.
To be fair, “Dr. J: The Autobiography” has its moments, reminding us, for example, that if not for a twist of fate in the wheeling and dealing world of professional basketball in the early 1970s, Julius Erving might have been able to team up with the phenomenally gifted passer Pete Maravich on the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA. As it happened, the two future legends played together only briefly, and never in any regular-season games, before a contract dispute pulled the 22-year-old Erving back to the ABA’s Virginia Squires.
Erving’s descriptions of how his airborne, ballet-like game developed on the courts of Hempstead and Roosevelt, Long Island and New York City are certainly catnip for any basketball fan. “I can get to the rim on anyone” he tells us, and damned if he couldn’t.
The tales of the wild and crazy ABA and its colorful cast of characters, and the New York Nets, where he became a superstar, are entertaining, as is Erving’s recounting of the league’s demise (primary villain — no television contract) and his subsequent life with the Philadelphia 76ers, where he would spend the rest of his career.
We find out that Erving doesn’t hate Larry Bird, his most famous rival, but he does find it “a little disrespectful” when Bird names Michael Jordan, not Julius Erving, as “the best player he ever faced.”
To his credit, Erving does gives the great center Moses Malone his due for enabling the Philadelphia 76ers to win Erving’s only NBA championship in 1983, also noting that coach Billy Cunningham had the services of Chuck Daly, an assistant coach and future Hall of Famer, who would go on to win championships on his own as coach of the Detroit Pistons.
The book’s pretentiousness and solipsism can be forgiven as the usual sins of the sports star autobiography genre. Still, the areas that he glosses over, including his philandering, his disastrous relationship with two of his sons, his post–basketball life as a businessman and what seems to be at least a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (ironic, of course, considering his improvisational basketball game) would have made for a much richer and more complete book.
Presumably, most people will read Julius Erving’s autobiography because they’re interested in basketball, and ultimately, basketball is the book’s greatest source of pleasure and frustration. The man was phenomenally gifted with an almost superhuman ability to jump high and stay in the air for a very long time, unusually large hands and Olympian athletic skill and hand-eye coordination.
He truly captivated fans of the game when he played, and it’s fascinating to view the game from his perspective:
"I view basketball as a sport and an art form all in one. There is nothing more meditative for me than being in the flow of a game and finding these improvisational flourishes that seem to shift for a few moments the sense of what is possible in this universe."
He notes in passing that the Russian national team that consistently beat the U.S. team of collegiate players he was on in 1970 play with “a machine-like efficiency and execute no matter how we play them. Excelling at every aspect of the game, they play crisp zone defenses and every player on the team can shoot.”
But that’s it; there’s no curiosity or analysis about how his own team might benefit from playing disciplined team basketball. Similarly, when he’s in the pros, there’s very little reflection about what separates winners from losers, other than who’s on the teams’ roster.
For a fleeting moment, Erving describes how basketball is actually played on a professional level when talking about Billy Ray Bates, a rookie on the 76ers who was the most gifted athlete on the team, a standout in scrimmages but nearly useless in real games.
Why? Being illiterate and not being able to read the playbook didn’t help. But Bates was really doomed because he failed to “understand the situational nature of the team game” Erving says. “We rely on one another. In every play and every variation of each play, depending on the defensive look we are getting, I need to be sure my teammates are going to be where they are supposed to be.”
Great stuff! But that’s about as deep as Erving gets talking about the game of basketball in the entire book.
He also doesn’t seem very interested in the game before or after his own career. It’s true that his own acrobatic, high-flying game helped revolutionize the game, but he never mentions Earl "The Pearl” Monroe, another pioneer whose fluid and graceful playground style game paved the way for Erving, and he barely mentions Connie Hawkins, whose soaring, above-the-rim game predated Erving’s.
(If you’re really interested in how professional basketball was played in the 1970s, read David Halberstam’s penetrating account of spending a season with the Portland Trailblazers, “The Breaks of the Game.”)
Erving considers Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James his “lineage” but doesn’t talk about their games at all, and for him, the current era of professional basketball is mostly defined by the player’s high salaries and the power superstars wield over coaches and general managers.
You’re left with the impression Julius Erving is a very big Dr. J fan, but not a real big basketball fan.